Kazan: A baptism of fire may be the forecast for the Socceroos' opening match of the 2018 World Cup, but taking on title contenders France in their first outing on Saturday night (AEST) could be a blessing in disguise, if past form is anything to go by.
For all their pedigree, the French are notoriously slow starters in major tournaments and have an unimpressive record in opening matches. If history repeats in 2018, Australia may have received an advantage in drawing France in their opening game of the group.
Slow starters?: France’s Antoine Griezmann will be a danger for the Socceroos.
In their past eight opening clashes at major tournaments, France have won three, drawn four, lost once and failed to score four times. Such have been their sluggish starts to tournaments that, of those three victories, two were sealed with last-minute winners, one of which was a penalty.
While their only defeat on the opening day of a big tournament was the famous 1-0 loss to Senegal in 2002, their historical lack of potency bodes well for Australia in a competition where goal difference is crucial. The fact France have gone scoreless in four and only scored more than two goals once in those opening games will be of some comfort to Australia. Their 3-0 win over a 10-man Honduras at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (with help from a penalty and an own goal) is France's only comfortable opening-round win during this period.
Their other two victories came when they beat England 2-1 at the 2004 Euros, with both of France's goals coming in added time. Zinedine Zidane leveled in the 91st minute before scoring a penalty for the winner in the 93rd. France also beat Romania 2-1 at the 2016 Euros on home soil after Dimitri Payet scored an 89th-minute winner.
France failed to score in three of their opening-round draws: they were held 0-0 by Switzerland at the 2006 World Cup, Romania at Euro 2008 and by a 10-man Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup. They drew 1-1 with England at Euro 2012.
Conversely, in their past eight major tournaments, France have gone on to achieve some impressive results after opening-day struggles. Most notably they eliminated Brazil, Spain and Portugal in 2006 to reach the final, only to be beaten by Italy, when player of the tournament Zidane was famously sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi.
Socceroos winger Mat Leckie believes if Australia can avoid conceding an early goal they will have a strong chance of continuing France's unenviable opening-day record.
"The longer we stay in the game, the more pressure they’ll get and the more risks they’ll take," he said. "Maybe we can get them when they’re a little bit vulnerable. They’re definitely going to go for the win and push forward. The longer we stay in the game, the more risks and players they’ll probably send forward and then maybe we can get them on the break."
Wary: Socceroos star Mat Leckie.
While Leckie will have the role of punishing France on the counter, the task of fullback Aziz Behich will be more difficult in nullifying the threats of Paris Saint-Germain flyer Kylian Mbappe. Understandably, Australia's Bursaspor defender was less inclined to lean on the form book heading in Saturday's match in Kazan.
"They are a big nation, they have a lot of quality high-profile players, they can always change the game at any minute," Behich said. "We have to be switched on for the whole 90 [minutes] and, beyond that, just stay disciplined in our structure and I think it will be a good game."
France's recent history of opening games at major tournaments
2002 World Cup: Loss to Senegal 1-0
2004 Euros: Win v England 2-1
2006 World Cup: Draw v Switzerland 0-0
2008 Euros: Draw v Romania 0-0
2010 World Cup: Draw v Uruguay* 0-0
2012 Euros: Draw v England 1-1
2014 World Cup: Win v Honduras* 3-0
2016 Euros: Win v Romania 2-1
*denotes reduced to 10 men.
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